(For the month of November and December 2011, I am embarking on a 30 Plus-Day Challenge to finish a final rewrite of my young adult novel. To do so, I am taking a hiatus from posting my Tuesday morning flyingnotscreaming essays. Essays will resume the first week of December, 2011. In the meantime, I am posting a weekly Hiatus Report on my progress during my 30-Day Challenge. See the essay “My Next 30-Day Challenge” for more information.)
I firmly believe that to be a good writer, you have to be a good reader. You have to read widely and voraciously. You have to be addicted to books. This year I have spent more hours at my desk writing than ever before, and reading has taken on an all new importance. When I am tripped up by a technical difficulty in a manuscript, I turn to the work of others for insight. Luckily, I have read some exceptional titles that have not only got me over some tricky writing humps, but have inspired me to keep honing my work in hopes of reaching equivalent literary excellence.
Because I love book lists almost as much as books themselves, I have compiled a review of My Best Reads of 2011.
Young Adult Fiction ROCKS!
My current favorite genre is Young Adult Fiction, and not just because I’m writing a young adult novel. Some of the best writing published in the last decade has been written for teens. One of my very favorite books of the entire year was The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Luckily, I read the first of Collins’ trilogy before it became a national sensation and soon-to-be released movie, and had no expectations. I became so swept up in Katniss’ struggle against governmental oppression that I could not turn the pages fast enough. I found the remaining two books in the series, Catching Fire and Mockingjay to be equally excellent.
Nothing moves me like a story of bravery, tenacity, and survival against all odds. Based on real events from the mid-1980s, A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park tells the story of an orphan boy’s struggle to survive in warring Sudan. It is a beautifully told tale, and your life will be richer after reading this book.
Another excellent title I read in the Young Adult category is Notes from the Dog by Gary Paulsen. Paulsen, a favorite writer of mine, also wrote Winterdance, a superb telling of his experience participating in the Iditarod dogsled race. I also enjoyed the clever wit and important message of An Abundance of Katherines by John Green as well as the fine writing in the quietly powerful Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher.
Revisiting the Classics
As much as I love Young Adult Fiction, I found myself in a bit of a reading slump this past fall. In an effort to shake things up, I googled “best novels of all time” and happened upon TIME magazine’s “All-TIME 100 Novels,” their list of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923. List in hand, I headed to my public library and soon had a bounty of classic literature teetering on my nightstand.
For the first time I ventured into the science fiction genre and read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. It was a mind-blowing read. Take The Hunger Games and turn it up a notch. Next I picked up a copy of A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. Although Hemingway is one of my favorite authors, I’d never read his memoir of his early writing years in Paris. It was like reuniting with an old friend and finding him better than before.
As I read If Beale Street Could Talk, a lyrical story about the struggle of African-Americans in America by James Baldwin, I kept thinking, “What if I’d never read this book?!” Another book I’m glad I didn’t miss was the dark and powerful The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John le Carre. The same can be said about Robert Lewis Stevenson’s suspenseful Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I was also inspired by the incredible writing and storytelling in the play Trifles by Susan Glaspell, The Wonderful O by James Thurber, and the short fiction of Dorothy Parker, Katherine Mansfield, and Katherine Anne Porter.
The More Current Books
When my friend Mary showed up at my doorstep with the book To Be Sung Underwater clutched to her chest proclaiming it was so wonderful it left her breathless, I was skeptical. I’d never heard of the author Tom McNeal, but because I like Mary a lot, I gave his book a try, and soon I too was breathless. I kept expecting the quality of his work to falter at some point, but he kept his story true and clear to the very last page.
Another author who surprised me with her skillful writing was C.E. Morgan, author of the book All the Living. I stumbled on this book while searching for something else. I don’t know who Morgan is or where she came from–this is her only book and there is little biographical information to be found about her–but this woman writes descriptions that make me see the world differently.
Another surprise hit was the more current What Is Left the Daughter by Howard Norman. I’d seen Norman’s earlier work The Bird Artist for sale at our local used bookstore for years, but I had never been interested. After finishing What Is Left the Daughter, I went and bought everything they had of Norman. He is that good, and he writes about the northeastern coast of Canada, a place that intrigues me.
I don’t really need to plug the following authors because they’ve gotten plenty of praise and attention for their current work, but I believe excellent writers deserve their due, especially when they continue to be outstanding book after book after book and when they continue to stretch their boundaries. If you haven’t read The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, and The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman you really should. All are memorable and the writing often brilliant. Another outstanding book that has received a lot of attention is The Invisible Bridge by first-time author Judith Orringer. Her story stayed with me a long time after I finished reading this tale of World War II.
A friend’s husband suggested I read The Water Is Wide by Pat Conroy. I’ve never been a Conroy fan even though I have friends who rave about him, but this early work (his second book) is definitely one of my favorite reads of the year. His writing was so skillful, especially his dialogue, that I felt like I was sitting with him in the classroom participating, and often laughed aloud. He was only in his early twenties when he wrote this tale of teaching on an island off the coast of South Carolina.
I always think that the next book can never be as good as the book I just finished or that I will run out of good titles to read, but luckily the supply of amazing reads is endless. But I’m always looking for a good title, so if you have a book you loved from this year or the past, please let me know in the Comment section below. I’ll add it to my To Read list